When Volodymyr Zelenskyy tried to become President of Ukraine, he stood on a platform of peace. Zelenskyy promised to sit down with Vladimir Putin and reach an agreement with Russia. He would end the unpopular war in the East and focus on major domestic reforms. This included ridding the country of corruption and oligarchs.
The plan didn’t work out. Almost three years after his landslide victory, Zelenskyy is on the brink of war as president. Around 190,000 Russian soldiers are on the borders of Ukraine. US President Joe Biden has warned of an attack on Kiev. A Kremlin military offensive – whether full-scale or more limited – seems likely, possibly within hours or days.
This existential crisis for Ukraine has attracted Zelenskyy worldwide attention. Boris Johnson, Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz are among the European leaders who have visited Kiev and expressed their support for the pro-Western government. On Saturday, Zelenskyy met US Vice President Kamala Harris and Johnson at the Munich Security Conference, which discussed Ukraine’s fate and from which Russia was blatantly absent.
But critics fear that by refusing to make concessions to Moscow, Zelensky is steering his country towards disaster. They argue that he must find a pragmatic solution to the dangerous standoff with Putin — ruling out Ukraine’s NATO membership, at least for now — a key Russian demand. The US and its allies would join such a declaration and secretly breathe a sigh of relief, they argue.
“Russians will keep going until Zelenskyi gets the message,” said Vasyl Filipchuk, a former senior Ukrainian diplomat and foreign affairs spokesman. “They want him to stop what they see as anti-Russian rhetoric. A statement on NATO would calm the situation. Moscow and NATO would be happy. A few in the Ukrainian establishment would be unhappy.”
Filipchuk said he was increasingly concerned about the likelihood of a Russian attack after ruling out the threat until last week. There has been intense artillery fire from Separatist positions since Thursday. Several alleged false flag events – a car bomb in Donetsk, a shell landing on Russian territory – have fueled fears that a Russian offensive is inevitable.
“The risks of direct military fire are there. It is conceivable. I put the probability of a full-fledged war in Donbass at 30%,” said Filipchuk. “Zelenskiy had a very bad crisis. He doesn’t understand the depth of the problem. He’s badly advised. And he’s scared.”
Observers suspect that the president’s refusal to compromise in NATO is based on his fear of unpopularity. They believe he fears a backlash from supporters of Petro Poroshenko – Zelensky’s ambitious, militant predecessor – and right-wing nationalists. In recent months, Zelenskyy’s once-high ratings have plummeted, while his Servant of the People party has been mired in a scandal.
“Winston Churchill promised nothing but blood, sweat and tears. I’m afraid Mr. Zelenskiy is not up to it,” said Evgeniy Kiselyov, a leading journalist and talk show host. “A true politician is one who can speak out in a moment of national emergency.” The president is “lagging behind events” and is “too much” shaped by his previous career as a prominent actor, Kiselyov suggested.
Western governments have publicly expressed their solidarity with Zelenskyy. The US, UK and Lithuanians sent anti-tank and defensive weapons. Washington and London have portrayed Ukraine’s struggle with Russia as a civilizational struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. At stake is a sovereign country’s right to make its own security decisions and alliances, as opposed to an outdated imperial model of spheres of influence, they acknowledge.
But there was also trouble with Zelenskyy behind the scenes. He has angered his allies, particularly the Americans, by dismissing predictions of a Russian invasion as scaremongering and media hysteria. In recent weeks, he has publicly complained that these scenarios have damaged the Ukrainian economy, devalued its currency and undermined business confidence.
Zelenskyy has also accused the US of closing its embassy in Kiev and moving diplomatic personnel, including CIA officials, to the western city of Lviv. “We don’t have a titanic situation here,” he told the Guardian earlier this month. He pointed out that Ukraine has been at war for eight years since Putin annexed Crimea and organized a pro-Russian insurgency in the Donbass region.
“I don’t think that’s a good strategy. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” Kiselyov said of Zelenskyy’s US criticism. “Some key members of his team are so afraid of Putin and psychologically unprepared. They don’t know what to do if he strikes.” Would Putin invade? “Hard to say. I think he’s a madman. I don’t think he lives in the real world,” Kiselyov replied.
Kisleyov said Zelenskyy may have been smarter in dealing with the White House and only grumbled in private instead of voicing his grievances. “He could have said, ‘I’ll support you. But give me something in return, like a few dollars to help the economy. “Instead, you see Zelenskyy whining,” he said.
However, Zelenskyy’s party colleagues say the president is doing a good job under difficult circumstances. They point out that, according to polls, he remains the most popular politician in Ukraine. He has a good chance of winning re-election in 2024 – provided Moscow does not force him out. His party, Servants of the People, does less well. It seems certain that it will lose its Duma majority next year.
“The president remains strong and calm,” said Nikita Poturaev, an MP in Zelenskyy’s party and political adviser, at his parliamentary office in Kiev, across from Zelenskyy’s palace residence.
Zelenskiy enjoyed meeting the world’s leading figures and quickly formed relationships with them, Poturaev added. He said Zelenskyy, unlike previous holders of the post, is not personally corrupt. They include Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s pro-Russian leader, who looted the state budget before fleeing to Moscow in 2014 after his security forces opened fire on unarmed protesters, killing 100 of them.
Perhaps the greatest criticism of Zelenskyi is that he failed to prepare his citizens for a bloody war. The Ukrainian army is in better shape than it was in 2014, when it suffered a series of humiliating defeats. So far Zelenskyy has refused to distribute weapons to civilians, possibly fearing that they could be used to overthrow his government. Instead, volunteers organized education and national defense.
Serhiy Leshchenko, a former MP and prominent journalist, said Zelenskyy has withstood pressure from Moscow to implement the “toxic” Minsk Accords, signed in 2015 at a moment of Ukraine’s military weakness. Under the deal, Kiev would grant autonomy to the separatist regions in return for demilitarization — effectively giving Moscow the power of veto on foreign policy.
“Zelenskyj did not betray Ukraine or give Putin what he wants,” Leshchenko said. “It is only possible for him to regain his political credibility if he survives this crisis.”
“I think the threat is great. I’m more on our side than on Zelenskyy’s side,” said Olexiy Haran, professor of comparative politics at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. He cited a recent poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, which shows that half of Ukrainians think Zelensky should have done more to prepare for a conflict with Russia.
Haran added: “The rhetoric from Moscow is very dangerous. Putin has increased stress so high. It’s hard to imagine how he can back down now.”